Home | How Traditional Tales Reflect Popular Beliefs--a Vivid Example of the Process | WHY THE GODS PREFERS SKEPTICS--JK | DAMNED HUMAN RACE--Mark Twain | Clear Thinking: Use and Abuse of Reason--JK | LOGICAL FALLACIES: a listing | How to Evaluate Medical Discoveries | SOCIAL JUSTICE; 8 STEPS FORWARD--JK | STRANGENESS OF MAN, EXPLAINED--JK | THE RISING IQ PUZZLE--JK | Why Smart People Believer Weird Things--Prof. Shermer | How Thinking Goes Wrong--Prof. Shermer | Contact Me | GOD & EVIL, a witty story | WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS | New Page Title
Why Smart People Believer Weird Things--Prof. Shermer

Professor Michael Shermer, editor of the Skeptic Magazine, has published a book by the above title and then contributed an article to his quaterly publication.  He also has a monthly column in Scientific American

Why Smart People Believe Weird Things

by Michael Shermer | Sep 15 '03

“When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!”

—John Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds , 1852

During the month of April 1998, when I was on a lecture tour for the first edition of my book Why People Believe Weird Things ,  the psychologist Robert Sternberg (best known for his pioneering work in multiple intelligences) attended my presentation at the Yale Law School. His response to the lecture was both enlightening and troubling. It is certainly entertaining to hear about other people's weird beliefs, Sternberg reflected, because we are confident that we would never be so foolish as to believe in such nonsense as alien abductions, ghosts, Bigfoot, ESP, and all manner of paranormal ephemera. But, he retorted, the interesting question is not why other people believe weird things, but why you and I believe weird things; and, as a subset of Us (versus Them), why smart people believe weird things. Sternberg then preceded to rattle off a number of beliefs held by his colleagues in psychology—by all accounts a reasonably smart cohort—that might reasonably be considered weird. And, he wondered with wry irony, which of his own beliefs…and mine…would one day be considered weird? 

Unfortunately, there is no formal definition of a weird thing that most people can agree upon, because it depends so much on the particular claim being made in the context of the knowledge base that surrounds it and the individual or community proclaiming it. One person's weird belief might be another's normal theory, and a weird belief at one time might subsequently become normal. Stones falling from the sky were once the belief of a few daffy Englishmen; today we have an accepted theory of meteorites. In the jargon of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, revolutionary ideas that are initially anathema to the accepted paradigm, in time may become normal science as the field undergoes a paradigm shift. 1

Still, we can formulate a general outline of what might constitute a weird thing as we consider specific examples. For the most part, what I mean by a “weird thing” is: (1) a claim unaccepted by most experts in that particular field of study, (2) a claim that is either logically impossible or highly unlikely, and/or (3) a claim for which the evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated. Most theologians, for example, recognize that God's existence cannot be proven in any scientific sense, and thus I consider William Dembski's Intelligent Design Theory, Hugh Ross's “Reasons to Believe,” and Frank Tipler's Omega Point Theory—all of which purportedly use science to prove God—as not only unacceptable to most members of their knowledge community but as uncorroborated because such proof is logically impossible. 2

“Smart people” suffers from a similar problem in operational definition, but at least here our task is aided by achievement criteria that most would agree, and the research shows, requires a minimum level of intelligence. Graduate degrees (especially the Ph.D.), university positions (especially at recognized and reputable institutions), peer-reviewed publications, and the like, allow us to concur that, while we might quibble over how smart some of these people are, the problem of smart people believing weird things is a genuine one that is quantifiable through measurable data.

An Easy Answer to a Hard Question

It is a given assumption in the skeptical movement—elevated to a maxim really—that intelligence and education serve as an impenetrable prophylactic against the flim flam that we assume the unintelligent and uneducated masses swallow with credulity. Indeed, at the Skeptics Society we invest considerable resources in educational materials distributed to schools and the media under the assumption that this will make a difference in our struggle against pseudoscience and superstition. These efforts do make a difference, particularly for those who are aware of the phenomena we study but have not heard a scientific explanation for them. But are the cognitive elite protected against the nonsense that passes for sense in our culture? Is flapdoodle the fodder for only fools? The answer is no. The question is why?

For those of us in the business of debunking bunk and explaining the unexplained, this is what I call the Hard Question: why do smart people believe weird things? My Easy Answer will seem somewhat paradoxical at first:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

That is to say, most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning (that, presumably, smart people are better at employing). Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming.

All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training. Some beliefs really are more logical, rational, and supported by the evidence than others, of course, but it is not my purpose here to judge the validity of beliefs; rather, I am interested in the question of how we came to them in the first place, and how we hold on to them in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence.

The Psychology of Belief

There are a number of principles of the psychology of belief that go to the heart of fleshing out my Easy Answer to the Hard Question.

1. Intelligence and Belief.

Although there is some evidence that intelligent people are slightly less likely to believe in some superstitions and paranormal beliefs, overall conclusions are equivocal and limited. A study conducted in 1974 with Georgia high-school seniors, for example, found that those who scored higher on an I.Q. test were significantly less superstitious than students with lower I.Q. scores. 3 A 1980 study by psychologists James Alcock and L. P. Otis found that belief in various paranormal phenomena was correlated with lower critical thinking skills. 4 In 1989, W. S. Messer and R. A. Griggs found that belief in such psi phenomena as out-of-body experiences, ESP, and precognition was negatively correlated with classroom performance as measured by grades (as belief goes up, grades go down). 5

But it should be noted that these three studies are using three different measures: I.Q., critical thinking skills, and educational performance. These may not always be indicative of someone being “smart.” And what we mean by “weird things” here is not strictly limited to superstition and the paranormal. For example, cold fusion, creationism, and Holocaust revisionism could not reasonably be classified as superstitions or paranormal phenomena. In his review of the literature in one of the best books on this subject ( Believing in Magic ), psychologist Stuart Vyse concludes that while the relationship between intelligence and belief holds for some populations, it can be just the opposite in others. He notes that the New Age movement in particular “has led to the increased popularity of these ideas among groups previously thought to be immune to superstition: those with higher intelligence, higher socioeconomic status, and higher educational levels. As a result, the time-honored view of believers as less intelligent than nonbelievers may only hold for certain ideas or particular social groups.” 6

For the most part intelligence is orthogonal to and independent of belief. In geometry, orthogonal means “at right angles to something else”; in psychology orthogonal means “statistically independent of an experimental design: such that the variates under investigation can be treated as statistically independent,” for example, “the concept that creativity and intelligence are relatively orthogonal (i.e., unrelated statistically) at high levels of intelligence.” 7 Intuitively it seems as if the more intelligent people are the more creative they will be. In fact, in almost any profession significantly affected by intelligence (e.g., science, medicine, the creative arts), once you are at a certain level among the population of practitioners (and that level appears to be an I.Q. score of about 125), there is no difference in intelligence between the most successful and the average in that profession.


continued from page 1

At that point other variables take over, such as creativity, or achievement motivation and the drive to succeed, which are independent of intelligence. 8

Cognitive psychologist Dean Keith Simonton's research on genius, creativity, and leadership, for example, has revealed that the raw intelligence of creative geniuses and leaders is not as important as their ability to generate a lot of ideas and select from them those that are most likely to succeed. Simonton argues that creative genius is best understood as a Darwinian process of variation and selection. Creative geniuses generate a massive variety of ideas from which they select only those most likely to survive and reproduce. As the two-time Nobel laureate and scientific genius Linus Pauling observed, one must “have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones…. You aren't going to have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and some sort of principle of selection.” Like Forest Gump, genius is as genius does, says Simonton: “these are individuals credited with creative ideas or products that have left a large impression on a particular domain of intellectual or aesthetic activity. In other words, the creative genius attains eminence by leaving for posterity an impressive body of contributions that are both original and adaptive. In fact, empirical studies have repeatedly shown that the single most powerful predictor of eminence within any creative domain is the sheer number of influential products an individual has given the world.” In science, for example, the number one predictor for receiving the Nobel Prize is the rate of journal citation—a measure, in part, of one's productivity. As well, Simonton notes, Shakespeare is a literary genius not just because he was good, but because “probably only the Bible is more likely to be found in English-speaking homes than is a volume containing the complete works of Shakespeare.” In music, Simonton notes: “Mozart is considered a greater musical genius than Tartini in part because the former accounts for 30 times as much music in the classical repertoire as does the latter. Indeed, almost a fifth of all classical music performed in modern times was written by just three composers: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.” 9 In other words, it is not so much that these creative geniuses were smart, but that they were productive and selective.

So intelligence is also orthogonal to the variables that go into shaping someone’s beliefs. Think of this relationship visually as follows:


High Intelligence





Weird Beliefs


Normal Beliefs





Low Intelligence


Another problem is that smart people might be smart in only one field. We say that their intelligence is domain specific. In the field of intelligence studies there is a long-standing debate about whether the brain is “domain general” or “domain specific.” Evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Steve Pinker, for example, reject the idea of a domain-general processor, focusing on brain modules that evolved to solve specific problems in our evolutionary history. On the other hand, many psychologists accept the notion of a global intelligence that could be considered domain general. 10 Archaeologist Steven Mithen goes so far as to say that it was a domain-general processor that made us human: “The critical step in the evolution of the modern mind was the switch from a mind designed like a Swiss army knife to one with cognitive fluidity, from a specialized to a generalized type of mentality. This enabled people to design complex tools, to create art and believe in religious ideologies. Moreover, the potential for other types of thought which are critical to the modern world can be laid at the door of cognitive fluidity.” 11 It seems reasonable to argue that the brain consists of both domain specific and domain general modules. David Noelle, of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at the Carnegie Mellon University, informs me:

Modern neuroscience has made it clear that the adult brain does contain functionally distinct circuits. As our understanding of the brain advances, however, we find that these circuits rarely map directly onto complex domains of human experience, such as ‘religion’ or ‘belief.’ Instead, we find circuits for more basic things, such as recognizing our location in space, predicting when something good is going to happen (e.g., when we will be rewarded), remembering events from our own lives, and keeping focused on our current goal. Complex aspects of behavior, like religious practices, arise from the interaction of these systems— not from any one module. 12

What happens when smart people are smart in one field (domain specificity) but are not smart in an entirely different field, especially if the new field is a fertile breeding ground for weird beliefs? When Harvard marine biologist Barry Fell jumped fields into archaeology and wrote a best-selling book about all the people who discovered America before Columbus ( America B.C. ), he was woefully unprepared and obviously unaware that archaeologists had already considered his hypotheses of who first discovered America (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, etc.) but rejected them for lack of credible evidence. This is a splendid example of the social aspects of science, and why being smart in one field does not make one smart in another. Science is a social process, where one is trained in a certain paradigm and works with others in the field. A community of scientists read the same journals, go to the same conferences, review each other’s papers and books, and generally exchange ideas about the facts, hypotheses, and theories in that field. Through vast experience they know, fairly quickly, which new ideas stand a chance of succeeding and which are obviously wrong. Newcomers from other fields typically dive in with both feet without the requisite training and experience, and proceed to generate new ideas that they think—because of their success in their own field—will be revolutionary. Instead, they are usually greeted with disdain (or, more typically, simply ignored) by the professionals in the field. This is not because (as they usually think) insiders don’t like outsiders (or that all great revolutionaries are persecuted or ignored), but because in most cases those ideas were considered years or decades before and rejected for perfectly legitimate reasons.

2. Gender and Belief.

In many ways the orthogonal relationship of intelligence and beliefs is not unlike that of gender and beliefs. With the surge of popularity of psychic mediums like John Edward, James Van Praagh, and Sylvia Browne, it has become obvious to observers, particularly among journalists assigned to cover them, that at any given gathering (usually at large hotel conference rooms holding several hundred people, each of whom paid several hundred dollars to be there), that the vast majority (at least 75%) are women. Understandably, journalists inquire whether women, therefore, are more superstitious or less rational than men, who typically disdain such mediums and scoff at the notion of talking to the dead. Indeed, a number of studies have found that women hold more superstitious beliefs and accept more paranormal phenomena as real than men. In one study of 132 men and women in New York City, for example, scientists found that more women than men believed in knocking on wood or that walking under a ladder brought bad luck. 13 Another study showed that more college women than men professed belief in precognition. 14

Although the general conclusion from such studies seems compelling, it is wrong. The problem here is with limited sampling. If you attend any meeting of creationists, Holocaust “revisionists,” or UFOlogists, for instance, you will find almost no women at all (the few that I see at such conferences are the spouses of attending members and, for the most part, they look bored out of their skulls). For a variety of reasons related to the subject matter and style of reasoning, creationism, revisionism, and UFOlogy are guy beliefs. So, while gender is related to the target of one’s beliefs, it appears to be unrelated to the process of believing. In fact, in the same study that found more women than men believed in precognition, it turns out that more men than women believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. 15 Seeing into the future is a woman’s thing, tracking down chimerical monsters is a man’s thing. There are no differences between men and women in the power of belief, only in what they choose to believe.



There is a simple reason--one based on the distinction the Greeks made and consistent with scientific psychology--namely, the animal nature of the person influences the rational nature.  Social reinforcers influence analysis.  In plain language, people like to genuflect. 


No one deliberately does bad math unless there is personal benefits.  The simple adding of a column of figures and arriving at a sum in most instances in free of social reinforces that would reward the wrong answer, but the analysis of the New Testament has many, many social reinforcers acquired over the individual’s lifetime. 


To analyze the errors (as Shermer does) doesn’t show its causes.  It isn’t the person’s inability to tell fiction from history that makes him believe that JC walked on water, for that error is not universally made:  scriptures of other religions are treated as fiction.  If scripture analysis was similar to an error in Calculus where a particular use of a derivate was incorrect, that error would be repeated each time the operation was repeated.  With errors of analysis, be it of herbs or of JC, the error occurs only in the sphere that has been subjected to strong social reinforcers. 


Smart people are subject to social reinforcers just like those with room-temperature IQs; however, most smart people have been subjected to greater training in methods of rational analysis, and so has their peer group.  The answer as to why smart people believe weird things is found in their personal history.